Last fall, midway through a junior year spent rampaging across North Carolina high school football fields, Quavaris Crouch began to formulate his future. As he became the top-ranked running back recruit in America, he surveyed the state of the position at the sport’s highest level. He studied the fleeting shelf life of NFL running backs and saw stars like Le’Veon Bell scuffle through contract negotiations.
Crouch, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound “big old freak” — his words — could have played running back at any college in the country. After peering into the years ahead, the 18-year-old decided he would play running back nowhere: He switched to linebacker. Crouch wants to rush the passer, because in the NFL, running backs get used up and sack artists get paid.
“I want to be smart about it,” Crouch said Monday afternoon in a phone conversation. “My passion is running back. I love to play running back. I love to score touchdowns. Realistically, I feel like linebacker is the best for me.”
Crouch has supporters in high places. Standing at his locker inside Washington Redskins headquarters last Friday, Adrian Peterson listened to a reporter explain Crouch’s outlook. Peterson nodded along and raised an eyebrow.
“Smart guy,” Peterson said. “It’s smart. If you’re able to play a different position and be good at it and be as dominant, then me as a running back, I would definitely go that route.”
Those words, coming from Peterson, form a staggering appraisal of the state of the NFL running back. In 11 seasons, he has earned $99 million, which is $30 million more than the next-highest earning back. He has rushed for more yards than all but eight men, and scored more rushing touchdowns than all but five. And even Peterson believes if he was a high school senior today, his best career path would be . . . something else?
“Yeah, definitely,” Peterson said. If he was 18 now, Peterson says, he would choose wide receiver or put on weight and become a pass rusher, “like Von Miller or something,” Peterson said.
Crouch and Peterson, two of the great running backs at their respective career stages, agree playing the position professionally would be unwise for players who have options. They have a clear-eyed view of how the prestige of the position has evolved. Running back, from the days of Jim Brown, was for the fastest, baddest dude on the field. Even as recently as 2011, Peterson signed a contract worth up to $100 million. Now, the best high school running back in the country says no thanks to the position.
The value of running backs has nosedived among modern NFL teams. The pounding running backs take shortens their careers. Teams view them as replaceable and increasingly specialized. Lasting stars at the position are going extinct.
Bell’s saga added another data point. Slapped with the franchise tag by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bell ended up sitting out the entire season rather than play for $14.5 million and risk injury before he became a free agent. The Steelers would not offer him the long-term contract he wanted, even after Bell carried the ball or caught it more than 400 times last year. It was the latest sign of how teams view running backs as interchangeable and fragile, unworthy of massive paydays even as the demands of their position grow more diverse.
“It’s because they’re devaluing that position,” Peterson said. “But if you take a lot of those guys out of those positions, that offense is not going to function. You take Alvin Kamara out of New Orleans, they’re still going to be functional because they got Drew Brees, but it’s not going to be the same threat. You take Melvin Gordon out of the Chargers' offense, that offense is totally different. Look at the Eagles [after injury sidelined Jay Ajayi]. Totally different. That’s how valuable the running back position is. They act like they don’t see it, but they know.”
Peterson said he and other running backs “without a doubt” appreciated Bell holding out rather than signing the franchise tag.
“[The Steelers] got lucky with [James] Conner, because he’s doing an outstanding job,” Peterson said. “He’s not Le’Veon Bell. The ability he brings to that team, I understand [Bell’s holdout]. Someone has to stand up and say, ‘Show me what I’m worth.’ . . . Somebody is going to give him what he wants, or around what he wants. I can tell you that much.”
The majority of running backs don’t last long enough to sign a second deal, and those who do are often squeezed. Todd Gurley, whom the Rams signed to a four-year, $57.5 million extension before this season, stands as an outlier. But even he can look around his own locker room for an idea of what the NFL thinks of his position. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks signed a deal worth $81 million over five years, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald signed for $135 million over six.
A coming wave is about to give NFL running back valuation another stress test. The rookie contracts of Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott and Kareem Hunt are all set to expire after the 2020 season. All of them, like Bell, contribute heavily to their team’s passing attack. Like Bell, they could argue they deserve to be paid more than a traditional running back. In the wake of Bell’s holdout, Peterson has some advice for them.
“I would say stand your ground,” Peterson said. “Get your worth. Get what you’re worth. I remember telling Alvin, ‘Listen, God willing you stay healthy, keep doing what you’re doing, the Saints are going to be paying you a lot of money here soon.’ So when his opportunity comes, he has to understand his value to the team and what he brings to that team. It’s understanding what your value is, and not feeling guilty.
“A lot of guys get caught up in letting these guys down,” Peterson continued, motioning with his arms to teammates inside the Washington locker room. “What they need to understand is, it’s a business. At the end of the day, it’s a business. And [teams] don’t cater to every player the same way, unfortunately. As far as the running back position, they don’t really cater to us. If you have that talent, know your value, and do what it takes to make sure you get what’s due to you.”
If Crouch reaches the NFL, he plans to circumvent the challenge of getting paid as a running back by playing defense. Playing fullback in Harding High’s wing-T offense as a junior, Crouch rushed for more than 3,000 yards and 27 touchdowns. He has no discernible body composition other than muscle. “God has created some freaks,” Harding Coach Van Smith said. “Crouch is one of them.”
Crouch asked college recruiters if he could still play running back in goal-line packages, and coaches like Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh approved. But his full-time role will be defense, a choice he made for his long-term career prospects. He sees smaller, quicker running backs coming to prominence at the pro level. He understands the punishment big running backs take, mentioning Leonard Fournette and Earl Campbell as examples. He thinks Bell was right to hold out.
“I feel like they don’t treat the backs right,” Crouch said. “We’re not valuable as much as somebody else who plays. You want to go somewhere where you’re valued and they’re going to need you.”
Crouch believes the best high school running backs, especially bigger backs like him, will make the same switch with an eye toward the future.
“If you’re a pass rusher, and you can manipulate the passer, you’re a $100 million man,” said Sam Greiner, Crouch’s coach during his first three seasons. “But some of the running backs, they might only have a life span or three to five years, and nobody takes care of them with guaranteed money. They think they’re just dime-a-dozen when you get to that level. It’s a crazy thing to see how high school, college, it’s such a big deal. You see Heisman candidates and all of that at running back, and all of a sudden that means nothing at the highest level.”
It will be hard for Crouch to let go of playing running back full-time. He loved the position, loved scoring touchdowns, loved when he broke a long run and heard the crowd’s cheers grow into a roar as he sprinted. “Everybody knows your name,” Crouch said. “You just get a lot of love playing running back. It’s nice, man.” Carrying the ball may still be a joy, but increasingly for the best athletes in football, it is no way to make a living.
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